More recently, an influential cadre of medical leaders has been pushing for greater attention to the problem. They cite concerns about the growing complexity of medicine and increasing fragmentation of the health-care system, as well as relentless time pressures squeezing doctors and the overuse of expensive, high-tech tests that have supplanted traditional hands-on skills of physical diagnosis.
Publicity about the death last year of 12-year-old Rory Staunton, sent home from an emergency room in New York after doctors missed the raging systemic infection that quickly killed him, have put a human face on the problem. At the same time, new digital databases such as IBM’s Watson and Isabel promise to boost doctors’ accuracy, although their usefulness remains a matter of debate.
“One of the reasons it’s time to begin looking at it is that so many of the quality measures we use now assume that the diagnosis is the right one in the first place,” said Christine Cassel; a member of the panel that wrote the 1999 IOM report, she is now president and chief executive officer of the American Board of Internal Medicine.
But what if it's not?
In a much-cited essay, Robert Wachter, associate chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, wrote that a hospital could earn “performance incentives for giving all of its patients diagnosed with heart failure, pneumonia and heart attack the correct, evidence-based and prompt care — even if every one of the diagnoses was wrong.”
Discovered late — or never
Unlike drug errors and wrong-site surgery — mistakes that patient safety experts consider to be “low-hanging fruit” amenable to solutions such as color-coded labels and preoperative timeouts by the surgical team — there is no easy or obvious fix for diagnostic errors. Many are complex and multifaceted, and may not be discovered for years if ever, said Graber, a senior fellow at RTI International, a research firm based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
“There is probably nothing more cognitively complicated” than a diagnosis, he said, “and the fact that we get it right as often as we do is amazing.”
But doctors often don’t know when they’ve gotten it wrong. Some patients affected by misdiagnosis simply find a new doctor; unless the mistake results in a lawsuit, the original physician is unlikely to learn that he blew it — particularly if the discovery is delayed. While diagnostic errors are a leading cause of malpractice litigation, the vast majority do not result in legal action.